Southwest vs Spirit: an in-depth guide for choosing one over the other

Southwest Airlines vs Spirit Airlines

For many US-based travelers, Southwest vs Spirit is is a comparison that they’ve had to weigh the pros and cons of at least once in their adult lives. I’ve done it a time or two myself, and it always has me reaching for the Tylenol afterwards.

Both airlines were built from the ground up to serve budget-minded travelers, and both have done very well for themselves doing exactly that. However, they aren’t exactly mirror copies of one another. As a matter fact, I’d say that they are different in more ways than they are the same.

Southwest vs Spirit: a brief comparison (for those of you who loathe reading)

The TLDR summary of this entire comparison is that Southwest Airlines is a mainline carrier similar to Delta, United, or American.

On the other hand, Spirit still feels like a scrappy low-cost start up trying to get ahead any way they can. The experience you’ll get on either of these two airlines is very representative of those classifications.

spirit airlines
A Spirit Airlines A320 arriving in San Diego. I can’t necessarily say that it’s arriving in style, but…it is arriving.

On Spirit, don’t expect anything more than basic transportation. The enjoyment you get out of the experience is entirely up to you, since you have to pay extra for perks like bringing aboard a carryon bag.

However, on Southwest, it’ll feel more like you’re flying on an established airline that won’t nickel and dime you for every little thing. They can also assist you relatively easily if things go wrong. Good luck trying to get booked on another Spirit Airlines flight that will get you to your destination the same day if your flight gets cancelled!

It goes a lot deeper than that though. Strap yourself in for an airline comparison so deep that you’re gonna a swim swim cap (preferably one with little airplane propellers on it)…

All the major differences between Spirit and Southwest

As I noted in the intro to this comparison, Spirit and Southwest may seem very similar to anyone not familiar with the US airline industry. Both carriers focus on delivering the highest value possible to their customers for as little amount as money as possible.

Spirit is far more aggressive with this than Southwest is, but this basic low-cost ideology is what made each of these airlines so successful.

Similarities

  • Both Southwest and Spirit operate a point-to-point flight network. This means that they don’t rely on filtering their flights through hub cities. The majority of their flight network is connecting individual cities together with nonstop flights.
  • Although this isn’t as common as it used to be, both airlines tend to stay out of major airports. Instead, they focus on the secondary airports in those major cities in order to reduce costs and eliminate competition.
  • Both airlines focus on destinations within the continental United States. However, both offer a limited number of international flights to Mexico and the Caribbean.
  • Both Southwest and Spirit have feature-rich frequent flyer programs that are competitive with what the mainline carriers offer. More on this in a moment…
  • Both airlines have ugly-ass liveries (which I’ll be discussing at the bottom of this post – because it’s, you know, important).

Differences

  • While Southwest Airlines has a vast flight network covering a majority of the continental United States, Spirit Airlines is more focused on the eastern half.
  • The entire Southwest Airlines fleet of aircraft consists of Boeing 737‘s (various models). Spirit, on the other hand, features airbus aircraft such as the A319, A320, and A321.
  • Spirit Airlines offers a full buy-on-board food program. Southwest Airlines does not (although they do serve complimentary snacks – and alcoholic drinks for a fee).
  • Spirit Airlines features a premium seating option called the Big Front Seat. Southwest Airlines does not have any premium seating options. All seats on every airplane are exactly the same.
  • Southwest Airlines flies to Hawaii. Spirit does not.

An oversimplified history of both airlines

The way that both of these airlines came to be is somewhat similar. They were both created by entrepreneurs who were determined as all heck to offer a low-cost airline product that most people could afford. The exact way each went about that was a little different, however.

How Southwest Airlines started

Southwest Airlines was launched in 1967 by two very crafty business men: Herbert Kelleher and Rollin King. Back then, it was called “Air Southwest Co.” and services were limited to intra-Texas routes for the first few years.

Read more about the history of Southwest Airlines

How Spirit Airlines started

The fact that Spirit actually started as a trucking company in 1964 makes me automatically want to declare them the winner in this competition against Southwest. I mean, talk about the ambition it must have took to move from trucks to airplanes when they realized that they needed to change directions to survive?

Anyway, the initial operation was called “Charter One” and was based out of Detroit. As you could probably tell by the name, it was a charter operation. Desperate ambition struck again in 1993 when they launched their first scheduled (commercial) flights.

Read more about the history of Spirit Airlines

Comparing the Southwest vs Spirit in-flight experience

Here is where this Southwest vs Spirit competition gets really a little gnarly. Believe it or not, it’s actually Spirit Airlines which offers more when it comes to the overall in-flight experience. They offer a better seating option, better food, and even a fare structure (which allows you to pay for only what you want and nothing more).

Seats

When it comes to seats, Spirit Airlines (and it’s Big Front Seat option) is the clear winner in this comparison. Even though the regular main cabin seats on both of these carriers are pretty much the same (small, hard as a rock, and blue), having a premium seating option is huge.

Southwest Airlines seats

Southwest Airlines has been all over the place in recent years when it comes to consistent consistent interior on their airplanes. However, I’m happy to report that their newest interior (which you can see in my Southwest Airlines Business Select review) is pretty sharp looking.

newest Southwest Airlines interior
The newest Southwest Airlines interior (as I experienced on a flight from San Diego to Phoenix). It’s ok for short hops but…would you want to sit in one of these seats on the way to Hawaii and back? I’m not that crazy – give me Hawaiian Airlines A321 first class any day of the week over this!
all new Southwest Airlines interior
Dang it. Now I want to go to Hawaii.

Southwest seats are pretty darn far from what I consider to be labeled as “luxurious”or anything, but they do look great. They are also very simple and easy to clean. This is especially important for an airline like Southwest who prides themselves on short turn times between flights. The faster they can clean an aircraft and send it off again, the better!

It’s important to note that there are no power outlets in these seats. That’s almost unheard of these days, but for some reason or another Southwest deemed it an unnecessary expense.

Spirit Airlines seats

In terms of main cabin seats, there’s not much to say when comparing Spirit’s seats to what you’re going to find on Southwest. They look similar, and more importantly, they feel similar. And just like on Southwest Airlines, there are no power outlets (or video screens) anywhere to be found. Remember – this is a low-cost / no-frills airline, and you really can’t expect anything fancy once you sit down in a seat you only paid $29 for.

newest Spirit Airlines seat
This is the best picture I have of what it’s like to sit in the newest Spirit Airlines seat. The odd color balance, graininess, and near close-up of my crotch only helps to tell the story IMHO. These seats are ok, but not great.

Unlike Southwest Airlines, Spirit offers a premium seating option called the Big Front Seat. And, as comfy and convenient as that sounds, that’s exactly what they are. They are big. Comfly. And they are also very conveniently located at the very front of the plane.

Spirit Big Front Seats pic
The Spirit Big Front Seats aren’t actually as big as the name implies, but…they are indeed located at the front of the plane.

The seats, which are available for an extra cost at the time of booking (or at the gate if they are still available), are similar to the first class seats you’ll find on the mainline carriers in the United States.

The difference, however is that these seats are not separated from the main cabin by a bulkhead wall. You also won’t receive any extra service while sitting in the seats (such as food and drinks). All you’re paying for is a little more room to spread out (as well as being the first on and off the airplane).

Food

Again, this is another area where Spirit mops the floor with Southwest. Despite being an ultra low-cost carrier, they actually offer a decent food-for-purchase program that rivals what you would find on many other airlines all over the world. Except for AirAsia. The Chicken Rice on AirAsia (which you can drool over see in my detailed AirAsia review) is in a league of it’s own.

On Southwest Airlines, all you’re going to get is a bag of snack mix and a non-alcoholic drink of your choice. At least it’ll be free though.

Southwest Airlines food

Until the day that Southwest Airlines offers a competitive food-for-purchase program and I have to come back and update this post, the following pictures are all I have for you in regards to describing what food is like on Southwest Airlines.

Southwest Airlines snack mix with yellow bag
I hope y’all appreciate how long it took me to compose this shot in a way which shows all three kinds of niblets you’ll get in a bag of Southwest Airlines snack mix.

The snack mix is decently fine on flights less than three hours, but something a bit more substantial than these little yellow bags of highly-processed crunchy bits would be greatly appreciated on longer segments.

Spirit Airlines food

On Spirit Airlines, you’ll get a complementary drink and nothing more if you don’t feel like spending money. They don’t serve a complementary snack like Southwest does, but they do offer an extensive menu of food which will keep you somewhat satisfied on longer segments.

spirit airlines full menu
Choices…choices…choices. Very expensive choices, yes, but choices nonetheless.
Spirit fruit and cheese plate
Should I be embarrassed that I chose a Diet Coke and a cheese plate? Maybe…but only because of how much I paid for it.

You may not be completely satisfied with what Spirit offers, and you may be a little ticked off because of how much you had to pay, but it is real food.

Comparing the Southwest and Spirit frequent flyer programs

Rapid Rewards (Southwest’s loyalty program) and Free Spirit (Spirit’s loyalty program) are relatively similar to one another. This wasn’t always the case, since it was only recently that Spirit Airlines modified their program to be more useful and practical for not-so-frequent flyers. Prior to 2020, it was pointless to earn points on Spirit if you flew with them infrequently (since points expired relatively quickly).

These days, both Spirit and Southwest feature loyalty programs as feature-rich as those of the mainline carriers.

All the ways that the Southwest and Spirt frequent flyer programs are similar

  • The higher levels of each program earn points at a faster rate
  • The bottom tier of each program gives you perks like fast-track security access and priority boarding
  • The top tier of each program gives you additional perks such as free drinks (and bonus points)

All the ways that the Southwest and Spirt frequent flyer programs are different

  • Southwest has two tiers of frequent flyer status (A-List and A list Preferred). Sprit has two three levels (Basic, Silver, and Gold)
  • Reaching the lowest tier (A-List) on Southwest requires flying 35,000 miles (or 25 qualifying segments) in a calendar year. Reaching the lowest tier on Spirit (the basic membership) is free. All you need to do is sign up. The next level (Silver – equivalent to Southwest A-List) requires earning 2000 Status Qualifying Points (SQP) in a calendar year.
  • Reaching the top tier (A-List Preferred) on Southwest requires flying 70,000 miles (or 50 qualifying segments) in a calendar year. Reaching the top tier on Spirit (Gold) requires earning 5000 SPQs in a calendar year.
  • Earning or redeeming points at least once in a 12 month period will keep your Spirt account active. On Southwest, points do not expire.
  • Family members can pool their points together to earn rewards on Spirit Airlines. This is not possible on Southwest.

Why would you choose Southwest over Spirit?

There can be many good reasons for making the decision to fly one of these airlines over the other. However, I think that for most flyers, there are not enough significant differences to justify going with one over the other all things being equal (price, route, schedule, etc).

These are both perfectly fine airlines, and they’ll safely get you to where you want to go to safely and without issue. That being said, what fun is a head-to-head comparison if I just leave it at that?

Choose Southwest if:

You prefer to fly a well-established (and very large) airline with a huge network of flights and destinations all over the United States.

In other words, if things go bad because of weather, delays, etc. Southwest Airlines is far more likely to be able to get you to your destination on the same day. With Spirit’s limited network, you’ll be lucky to be re-accommodated on a flight that is anything but convenient.

Choose Spirit if:

All you need is the most basic flight experience for the lowest possible price. Because of the way that Spirit Airlines bundles their fares, it’s entirely possible for you to pay just for your seat and nothing else. You can save a lot of money by foregoing extras such as making a seat selection, having a carry-on bag, checking bags, and having a snack.

Which airline has the better livery?

I’ve talked about both these Southwest Airlines and Spirit Airlines liveries in previous comparisons (Delta vs Southwest and Frontier vs Spirit), but I’ve never put these two together side-by-side in order to show just how similar they really are.

Long story short, both of these airlines have decided to go with the “extremely loud” approach, meaning that choosing the brightest color possible was a number one priority. At least it seems it that way. Check this out:

The latest Southwest Airlines livery

The Southwest Airlines livery is predominantly blue with accents of neon red and yellow on the vertical stabilizer. It’s one of those kind of liveries that you either love or hate. As much as I hated it at first, I think I’m starting to come around a bit. It looks great in bright sunlight!

Southwest Airlines 737-800 livery
The very-blue Southwest Airlines livery. I kinda like it (which is sayin’ a lot considering that my favorite color is red).

By the way did you know that those white lines separating the colors are not actually white? It’s true – they are actually silver. Pretty neat, huh?

The latest Spirit Airlines livery

In my opinion, the Spirit Airlines livery is straight up obnoxious. However, being an ultra low-cost carrier allows them to be a little less formal than the legacy carriers, so going “balls-out banana yellow” wasn’t all that crazy of an idea.

bright yellow spirit airlines livery
Shhhh. Can you hear that? That’s the sound of your computer / tablet / phone gasping for breath as it struggles to display so much yellow at once. This is a bright livery!

Love it or hate it, this livery stands out at busy airports. It stands out so much, as a matter fact, that I actually felt embarrassed when getting content for my latest Spirit Airlines trip report. I knew that nobody could see me, but still – it’s the principle of it all.

A few final thoughts about this comparison

This Southwest vs Spirit comparison was probably one of the most valid of comparisons that I’ve done so far. For example, when I compared Southwest to Delta, it was difficult for me to whittle it all down into a succinct summary of both similarities and differences. After all, Delta is a huge global airline. Southwest is not.

The moral of the story is this: you can’t go wrong flying either Spirit or Southwest anywhere within the continental United States. If either of these two airlines show up in your flight search offering a nonstop flight (when the mainline carriers force you to connect at a hub airport), it would be very wise of you to choose to nonstop option.

As a matter fact, that’s probably the best thing about these two airlines. Since they don’t adhere to the hub-and-spoke business model, they are often more convenient than the mainline carriers.

Anyway, I’d love to hear your thoughts about this comparison. Has either of these two airlines screwed you over in the past? Also, why do you prefer one over the other? I’d love to know in the comment section below!

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